Often, when confronted with a difficult person, the solution seems easy: avoid at all costs. But when the person is family, it’s not that easy. Truly toxic people are one thing, but what if your family is simply frustrating?
Even if you’re crushing it in your adult life (and it’s okay if you’re not!), family members often know exactly what to say or do to drive us bonkers, from whipping out cringy childhood nicknames to bringing up youthful mistakes to commenting on our life choices.
Even if your family members are some of your favorite people in the world, that doesn’t mean they can’t get under your skin. Sometimes, the people closest to us are the best at really pushing our buttons.
Here are a few strategies you can use to deal with frustrating family members during the holidays (or any time of year).
If you find yourself dreading a conversation with your grandma, anxious that your siblings will bring up a certain topic, embarrassed by how your parents act, or otherwise irked at the very thought of your family, don’t push those thoughts and feelings away—welcome them with open arms.
That self-awareness of the fact that you will get frustrated by them is actually a huge plus, because it means that you’ll be able to take care of yourself ahead of time and possibly avoid or slow down the escalation of your typical anger and frustration.
By using these strategies ahead of time, instead of going from zero to one hundred percent frustrated in no time and feeling that loss of control, you might be able to slow your reaction down, really notice what’s happening, and regain a sense of control that will help you feel less frustrated—or not frustrated at all!
No, we don’t mean punching your brother in the face. Something physical that will ground you in your body!
For example, MyWellbeing’s CEO, Alyssa Petersel, likes to push her pointer finger and thumb together in a sort of OK sign and focus on where the nail meets the skin. Focusing her attention on something really specific helps ground her in her physical body rather than spiraling into her thoughts.
Concentrating on the physical can ground yourself in your body and away from your thoughts, helping you to level out your feelings instead of having them escalate when you start to feel frustrated.
Step away! Instead of silently stewing or blowing up at them in the moment, leave the room (or chat or call) and take some time to yourself.
Free associate in a note on your phone or a journal and get everything out of your system. That way, your thoughts and feelings won’t be bottled up inside, but you also won’t say something to the person you’re frustrated with in the moment that you might regret later.
Once you’re in a calm place, you could try giving your frustrating family member some feedback. Maybe they don’t realize that what they’re saying is hurting you. Maybe they are being annoying on purpose, but they don’t understand how damaging it is to your relationship.
If a relative seems determined to pick a fight, pries too much into your private life or disagrees with everything you say, view it as a reflection of who they are, not who you are. And who knows; if they have a little time to self-reflect on their own, they might come around.
“When it comes to deciding how much (or at all) a person can keep a toxic family member in their life, I encourage people to take honest stock of how this relationship is impacting their life,” said Meg Gitlin, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member.
“Maybe first we do a series of experiments to see how effective boundaries and diminished expectations can be. If that proves futile, it’s important, but certainly not easy to practice acceptance—you may not be able to have a close relationship with your family member. I remind my clients that there are many people who have wonderful lives and develop relationships with ‘surrogate’ parents or other close support people.”
It can be extremely difficult to cut ties in a toxic relationship. How do we know if and when the time is right? Meg said it might be time when:
While we often want to control the words and actions of those around us, remember that it’s most powerful to have control over ourselves. We control how we act and react to events both good and bad, so when you’re dealing with difficult family members, focus on yourself.
And remember that, in many situations, people behave in a difficult way in reaction to something else. So you may think your niece flies off the handle without any reason, but she's furious because she thinks you're needling her about her appearance. If you behave differently, she will too.
If you’re struggling to cope with the stress, need to figure out better ways to keep your emotions from escalating, or just need someone to help you process your thoughts and feelings, a therapist or coach can help.
Dealing with frustrating family members is hard, but whether you practice self-awareness, ground yourself in your physical body, get your thoughts out on paper (or digitally), try talking to them, or realize that the relationship is not working and decide to walk away, you can feel confident that you’re tending to your own needs—and that’s what matters most.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.